'Tis the season

December 8, 2007

As an orgy of consumerism descends upon the Western world to commemorate the birth of Christ, it is poignant to consider the relationship between Christianity and the left. It is a common misconception that socialists are atheists and are opposed to all forms of religion. Indeed, many socialists are atheists, and the abhorrence of organised religion by some can be traced back to the role of the church in siding with regressive conservative forces at various stages throughout history (and indeed itself being at times a highly repressive institution). However, socialism is opposed to all forms of discrimination — be it based upon gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, or indeed religious belief.

Just as socialists around the world have opposed the war on terror — in which a crude Islamophobia has been used to justify imperial wars for oil — so too socialists oppose the persecution of Christians, Buddhists, Jews or Hindus.

There have been — and are — socialists who are Christians. Perhaps the most established form of "socialist Christianity" is liberation theology, a current of Catholicism (and also Protestantism) which emerged in South America and other parts of the world — especially the developing world — in the 1960s and '70s.

The Catholic church moved to distance itself from liberation theology during the 1980s, when a number of Latin American liberation theologists were murdered for supporting left-wing movements and groups. In 1980 El Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero, a staunch critic of the US backed right-wing government, was murdered by a member of a CIA-trained death squads after giving a sermon in which he spoke out against government repression.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who describes himself as a Christian and famously called George W. Bush the devil at the United Nations, has also said that "Christ was an authentic communist, anti-imperialist and enemy of the oligarchy" and was "the greatest socialist in history".

Spirituality and religious beliefs are neither inherently progressive or retrograde. There can and do exist socialist interpretations of most of the great religions that do not engender the persecution of other groups, condemning people to hell or perpetuating class systems or hierarchies. Socialists and liberation theologists share a similar vision of the "new human being" who will be free to develop after the abolishment of class antagonisms. The degree of collaboration between socialists and progressive religious individuals and organisations in establishing a world of deep and lasting social justice is yet to be seen, but the potential is certainly there.

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